Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

Putting All the Pieces Together: Exploring Workforce Issues in Mental Health Nursing

Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

Putting All the Pieces Together: Exploring Workforce Issues in Mental Health Nursing

Article excerpt


Areview of the government policy and the broader research and scholarly literature demonstrate a number of issues currently influencing the mental health of the nursing workforce, including: workforce trends, recruitment and retention, nursing workloads, workplace violence and aggression. The impact of these factors on staffing levels has been articulated in the literature; however the interdependence of these factors is not generally well articulated, potentially creating the false impression that one or more of these issues can be addressed in isolation from the others. For example, employment of experienced nurses from overseas is often used as a recruitment strategy without consideration of the broader systemic issues that are required in order to both attract and retain a mental health nursing workforce that will provide satisfactory staffing levels. The aim of this paper is to discuss the inter-relationship between staffing levels, recruitment and retention and other factors influencing the workplace environment.

The statement 'achieving adequate staffing levels requires effective recruitment and retention strategies and the establishment of a safe and positive work environment', might just as easily be presented as 'the establishment and maintenance of effective recruitment and retention strategies and a safe and positive working environment is dependent upon achieving and maintaining adequate staffing levels.The intention is not to focus on semantics but rather to encourage a more systemic conceptualisation of workforce issues as important considerations for workforce planning.


The important role the professional mental health workforce plays in service delivery is firmly embedded in Commonwealth and State Government policy. One of the aims of the National Mental Health Plan 2003-2008 is to strengthen initiatives that seek to address such workforce concerns in clear acknowledgement of the problems currently existing as the following statement demonstrates:

Addressing workforce issues is important for the mental health of the workforce itself. It is important to strive for a workforce that is equipped to provide the services demanded of it, is not stretched beyond its capacity, and is valued by consumers, carers and the community (2003: 11).

These words might appear to represent an encouraging acknowledgement not only that the mental health workforce is a crucial component of service delivery, but also that it needs to be acknowledged and cared for. However, articulation of strategies to enhance the development of the mental health workforce, and the commitment of the necessary funds to do so, are both notably absent from this document.

In essence, it is a document that describes a relatively utopian view of how the mental health workforce should be. Furthermore, the document outlines a number of key directions designed to enhance recruitment and retention and to provide support to the existing workforce. Without commitment to providing necessary resources, such words run the risk of being just words.

Recent government inquiries have highlighted the recruitment and retention crisis in the Australian mental health workforce (Australian Government Productivity Commission 2005; Senate Select Committee 2006) affecting all of the key professions involved in mental health care. Numerous factors were found to be influential but particular emphasis was attributed to: insufficient training and support, unsatisfactory working conditions and the lack of a clearly defined career path. In terms of nursing, this finding came as no surprise in light of the Australian literature which has for more than a decade described an impending serious deficit in mental health nursing (Clinton & Hazelton 2000; Farrell & Carr 1996; Happell 1998; Stevens & Dulhunty 1997).

The problem is further compounded by the lack of systematic collection of workforce data (Clinton 2000) making it difficult to fully understand the nature and extent of the problem. …

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